Tuesday, March 07, 2017
King Kong Week: Konga (1961)
In Konga (1961), a British botanist, Dr. Decker (Michael Gough) returns to London after having been lost in the Ugandan jungle for a year.
He returns with a chimpanzee he has christened “Konga,” and plans to research, at his university job, some of the unusual plants he discovered in Uganda that possessed unusual animal properties.
Almost immediately, Decker runs into resistance from his dean (Austin Trevor), and from his co-workers. They think his new line of research is pure bunk.
Obsessed with his work, and demanding to be taken seriously, Dr. Decker utilizes a growth serum to enlarge Konga to human-sized proportions. And then, by dark of night, he sends Konga to kill anyone who stands in his way.
Decker’s assistant, Margaret (Margo Johns), meanwhile, discovers Decker’s brutal crimes, and basically blackmails Decker into marrying her, in realization of her longtime wish. Decker, however, has eyes for a young student, Sandra (Claire Gordon), and has Konga kill his rival for her affection, a male student named Bob Kenton (Jess Conrad).
When Margaret realizes that Decker is in love with Sandra, she flies into a rage, and gives Konga more growth serum. He grows to gargantuan size, grabs Dr. Decker, and breaks free in London. Sandra, meanwhile, falls into the grip of a carnivorous plant from Uganda, and Margaret is killed during Kongas escape.
Konga and Decker are faced, at the foot of Big Ben, with the English military, which sets out to destroy the giant primate
An exploitation film of the early 1960s, Konga makes absolutely no bones about its relationship to another cinematic great ape if historic note. The tag-line for Konga reads: “Not since King Kong has the screen exploded with such mighty fury and spectacle.”
That ad-line puts a fine point on the matter, doesn’t it?
This is a British knock-off of King Kong, pure and simple. This fact is also reflected in the body proper of the film, right down to the specific dialogue. Decker states, at one point, that Konga hails from a “long line of kings of the Earth,” and that he is “royalty.”
So, he’s King…Konga?
Even in terms of story-beats, Konga goes right back to its 1933 source material. An innocent ape, in this case a chimpanzee, is brought back from the wild. Once in civilization, it is exploited for a human agenda. In King Kong, of course, Kong was captured on Skull Island and brought back to New York City, to Broadway. There, he was to be a moneymaker, a box office draw, for Carl Denham. Here, Konga is an unwitting test subject for the growth serum, and used by Decker as his personal assassin, killing all his enemies.
In both stories, a local landmark is prominently placed in the action (The Empire State Building vs. Big Ben), and the forces of the military stop the giant ape in his tracks.
One factor that distinguishes Konga from King Kong is the nature of the exploiter. Charles Decker is an absolutely terrible human being. He is thoughtless, merciless, avaricious, and even murderous.
He’s a near rapist too. People who disagree with him get killed. People who threaten him get killed. Even romantic rivals are executed. He is a terrible human being. And it’s never quite clear why he stops loving Konga and instead uses him as a weapon. For instance, upon return to London, he notes that Konga “has a name, and a place in my heart”
By contrast, Carl Denham in King Kong may have been misguided, but the audience had sympathy for him, nonetheless. The audience gives no sympathy to the mean-spirited, cutthroat Decker here.
Another key difference: visual effects in Konga are really, really bad, and don’t hold up well at all. In fact, the special effects from this 1961 film hold up less well than do the brilliant 1933 effects of King Kong, in 2017. Here, for instance, it is baffling why Konga transforms from a chimpanzee to a gorilla, as he grows. He literally switches species before our eyes. (I guess no chimp suit was available to the movie makers?)
Secondly, the Konga gorilla suit is really lumpy and droopy, a fact which lessens the character’s sense of visual menace. Konga possesses a big, hanging, pot belly, and overall, a pear-shaped body. There is nothing magnificent or wondrous about the character’s visual presentation.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that this ape doesn’t climb Big Ben. Instead, he just stands next to it, perhaps because the cut-rate effects couldn’t have made the ascent appear convincing. But the climax clearly suffers from the fact that Konga never climbs to the top of Big Ben. Instead, the military cuts him down in his prime, before his first step onto the building.
Despite the cheap-jack nature of the film’s visuals, there is indeed a tragic component to this tale, as there are to virtually all iterations of the Kong Cinematic Myth, if you want to term it that.
Here, Konga reverts to his chimpanzee size and form, after being killed by the military. We see his corpse on the ground, next to that of his master, Decker. There’s something incredibly sad about this final pose, and their final closeness, even. Konga didn’t ask for what happened to him, or to be used (and mis-used) by his master.
Yet in death -- as in life -- he is connected to his human master. Their fates were one in the same, even though one of them was innocent, and one was not.
I first read about Konga in a book called The King Kong Story (Chartwell; 1977). I saw it on a local television station for the first time in the early 1980s, and even as a child I was stunned by how derivative -- and how terrible -- this movie really is. The movie is mean-spirited in so many significant ways, perhaps to foster identification with Konga.
However, the visualization of the central character is so poor that I would argue the attempt doesn’t entirely work. This is a cheap, nasty version of the King Kong Myth, and one that is enlivened almost entirely by Michael Gough’s chewing-the-scenery central performance.